(Photograph by Frank E. Smith III)
Insights into the Book
An Interview with Elizabeth
. . . . . . . . . . .
Insights into the Book
How did your own viewpoints evolve from the time you started the book to the time it
was complete? What did you discover through the process of writing this book?
The historian Richard Current wrote back in the 1950s that Lincoln was a man nobody knows. In 1999 he
concluded that Lincoln was still the man that nobody knows. That can certainly be a daunting challenge for a
writer, particularly for a generalist like myself. But Current did go on to say that you have to make up your
own mind. There will always be those who support you, those who disagree with the evidence on which you
base your opinion.
So after viewing the evidence of eyewitnesses of Lincoln at the Soldiers’ Home, after reading many, many
excellent books about our sixteenth and most beloved President in preparation for writing this book, I can say
that I believe Lincoln was an eccentric, tough, democratic, visionary genius. I was pleased when Dr. Jean
Baker said she believed I was the first to describe Lincoln as an eccentric.
When talking to people who read your book, what are the one or two reader comments
that stick out most in your mind? Discuss why the comments you identified resonate
I love it when people say “I didn’t know that!” People often say, too, that they appreciate the human qualities
I bring out. Somehow I seem to empathize with the characters I write about, even characters such as Lincoln’
s generally detested, irascible Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Lincoln was perplexed by the hatred
many felt towards Stanton, on whom he came to rely heavily, and he had, as much as any one, the right to be
hostile given Stanton’s humiliating treatment at their first encounter many years before. But Lincoln saw the
good, the positive, and perhaps that is what I try to do. (I remember reading long ago what Charlemagne
said to Roland: “You are too prone to understand the enemy.”) Perhaps I am a contrarian. I know I’m not a
Pollyanna, but I do get tired of the cynicism that pervades so much of our national conversation. We won’t
survive if we write off everything that goes on, and so many of our negative conclusions are based on
inadequate knowledge. Perhaps Lincoln’s approach is worth copying: when he was told that Stanton had
called him a “damn fool,” Lincoln responded, “Did he really call me a damn fool? Well, I guess I’ll have to go
over and see him. Stanton is usually right.”
Why did you become an author?
I became an author thanks in large part to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I had sent her a detailed outline of
what I intended to be the possible successor to SMITHSONIAN WORLD, the Institution’s very popular
Emmy Award winning primetime PBS television series, on which I was Director of Research. I could not
believe my ears when just three days after sending her the outline, she was on the phone, saying “I can't
remember the last time I felt such an immediate surge of excitement for the idea of a project.”
She wanted to meet me, and talk about the idea of a book version, as well as a television series. On a snowy
February day, I managed to make my way through slippery unplowed streets to Union Station, arrived to an
equally strong blizzard in New York, got to her office at Doubleday, and had a fabulous meeting that lasted
over two hours. We spoke several times after that by phone, sharing ideas, and her memories, after which I
was completely exhausted, feeling that I had talked to history. The day after our meeting in New York her
illness was announced, and so after a month or so of discussions, she became too ill, and died in May. Her
assistant editor moved on to Simon & Schuster several months later, and took over the book idea, which was
then written by me in about three years.
What kind of impact do you hope your writing will have readers?
It is so sad for me to hear that people either don’t know much history, or that they’re bored by it! I do think
that is due to some extent to poor teaching on the high school level, left too often in the hands of sports
coaches who have to be kept warm and dry in the winter. They have no business teaching what often bores
them as well.
I want readers to feel the magnificent drama of our history, which is theirs too, after all, and to make them
realize that they, too, are an integral part of that drama.
John Adams gave this country two hundred years, and then, he believed, our republic would go the way of all
others. If that happens, it will be because we did not care to learn our history, and how critical individual
participation could be in preserving what Lincoln, my great grandfather and so many millions of others have
given their lives to preserve: “the last best hope of earth”.
What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
It is to get up every day, sit down, and START writing! A writer lives in a kind of nunnery, or monastery, if
you will, and everything else takes a place behind the work in progress: new movies, interesting lectures,
entertaining friends, etc. etc. I adore doing the research, and could go on and on reading about the subject
involved, but you have to stop sometime, and after all these years, I seem to have developed an ability to
sense just when that point has been reached. It’s kind of a nerve-wracking point, the point of no return,
because there’s always the doubt that maybe you could have done a bit more, but you have to move on if
you’re under contract. I really abhor writers who are too lazy to look into things, who are content to pass
along the same old misinformation (this is so true of Mary Todd Lincoln, and of some of the other figures in
our history, a few of whom I write about in the Lincoln book).
What inspired you to be a writer?
I have always loved to write. It’s really quite easy for me, at least to write in the style I’ve developed. I could
not write a novel if you gave me a million dollars, much as I would like to. I’m too practical, too rational, to
create a world of the imagination. I’m best at focusing what imagination and creativity I have on the selection
and organization of material that deals with reality.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing? What are your interests?
I love to read, fiction (mainly historical fiction), history, poetry, biography…It is surprising how much you can
get read in a half hour or an hour before you turn out the lights. At least that’s been my schedule during the
nine or ten years I’ve spent writing my two books. I’ve always read extensively for any project I get involved
in, possibly too much. Adrian Malone, who became executive producer of SMITHSONIAN WORLD for its
fourth and fifth seasons, wrote to someone, “She has a work ethic that would frighten even the Puritans!”
Maybe that’s so, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
I love to swim, to hike, to go to new places (never go back, always go forward, is my motto). I still have
much left to see, and am glad I began traveling as soon as I did. My first trip to Europe was after my
freshman year in college. I couldn’t wait to get there.
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